Vigil over First Nations deaths enters fourth week
Funding delays mean youth in remote First Nations communities go without mental health care
Carrie Lester is trying to stop a leak between the two gazebo tents she and fellow activists Sigrid Kneve and Sue Lynn Manone Cornfoot have been occupying just steps from the offices of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) at 25 St. Clair East since July 20.
The three women have been calling on federal and provincial governments to release allocated mental health monies to address Indigenous youth suicide issues after a rash of recent deaths. Cornfoot is handing out pamphlets to passersby scurrying through the rain storm. The depth of the crisis is spelled out in the brochure.
There have been more than 500 suicides (out of a population of 45,000) since 1986 in 49 Northern Ontario communities represented by the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN). More than 70 were children aged 10 to 14; another 200 were youth aged 15 to 20.
An emergency meeting to deal with youth suicides promised by the office of Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, won’t take place now until September.
Kneve says the need now is for action. “They’ve done the research, they’ve come to their conclusions, they just need to release the money.”
On June 24, the Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs tabled a report entitled, Breaking Point: The Suicide Crisis in Indigenous Communities.
A survey included in the report on the quality and availability of mental health services in Indigenous communities reveals that wait times to access these services resulted in some clients going without care.
The survey, which was sent to more than 50 administrators and front line workers in hospitals, treatment centres and community health facilities from Nunavut to Newfoundland and Labrador, assessed the overall quality of mental health services as poor or below average. More than half of the survey’s respondents (51.5 per cent) cited not enough staff as the reason for inadequate services. Almost as many (43.6 per cent) cited inadequate training.
On July 24 provincial health minister Eric Hoskins promised $1.6 million to pay for 20 mental health workerstohelppeopleinPikangikum First Nation cope with four recent youth suicides inside of a week. The minister wrapped into the same announcement an allocation of $200,000 for four additional mental health counsellors for Wapekeka First Nation, the remote Ojibway community (population 355) 450 kilometres north of Sioux Lookout.
Lester says that funding was promised last year when the community was going through a spike in suicides but the money was never delivered. “That’s criminal,” says Lester.
Resource exploitation and access to land for hunting and fishing is a big issue around community wellbeing. Many First Nations communities are built on flood plain and, says Lester, “there is always another resource underneath to extract,” forcing multiple relocations of some communities. She says “There is a multifaceted number of things that need to be done all at once,” including access to drinkable water.
The rain has let up and the 30 or so who didn’t get the message on Facebook that the march to Bennett’s riding office was cancelled, light their torches.
Lester, Kneve and Cornfoot say they don’t know how long they will continue their vigil. They are asking supporters to flood the inboxes of government decision makers after three more suicides were reported last week.
Sue Lynn Manone Cornfoot, Carrie Lester and Sigrid Kneve have been holding vigil outside INAC offices since July 20.